Saturday, February 21, 2004

TOP 50 ALBUMS OF ALL TIME: # 49

BONGWATER - Double Bummer dbl LP
An old friend of mine was down from Sydney this week to play at the What Is Music? festival (for folks o/s, WIM is an annual "experimental" music festival curated by Oren Ambarchi and co., held along Australia's East Coast; this year it featured Whitehouse, Merzbow, Keiji Haino and others), and unfortunately we didn't really get to speak properly at the crowded and noisy Whitehouse show when we bumped into each other. As fate would have it, we crossed paths at Missing Link a couple of days later and did the usual catch-up. The last time we'd gotten to really speak at length with each other was roughly (if memory serves) around September of 1999, when we spent a rainy afternoon at a friend's place sitting around spinning records and endlessly talking about our favourite music. Our bond was strengthened by one, possibly pathetic, fact: our mutual love for the Shimmy-Disc label. Man, you shoulda heard the names a-flyin'!: Shockabilly, Tuli Kupferberg, Dogbowl, B.A.L.L.... in almost hushed tones, we both secretly even admitted a love for early King Missile (whilst sternly stating that their later, major-label material was an embarrassment and disgrace for everyone involved).

Almost five years later we meet again, and you know the first thing out of his mouth? "Hey Dave, you dig B.A.L.L., don't you?" I had to chuckle and remind him that we'd had pretty much the exact same conversation nearly half a decade ago, but lo and behold, the names starting coming out all over again: Fred Lane, Fly Ashtray, etc. There was one matter in which we were both in clear agreement: Bongwater's Double Bummer from 1988 is truly one of the greatest albums of all time.

I first bought 'Bummer at the old Relic store in Prahran in early 1991. Much like my high school infatuation with the SST label (don't get me started on that: you KNOW I'll be discussing that down the line somewhere), by late 1990, after a brief fling with Touch & Go (yeah, I had a hell of a love-life at the time. I had to beat those records away with a stick!) I decided to delve into the world of Shimmy. Encouraged by favourable reviews in the mags of the day (FE, Flipside, B-Side... even Chemical Imbalance, MRR and an article in goddamn Rolling Stone[!!] I chanced upon), I picked up Double Bummer and didn't look back for approximately 18 months. There was only one name on my lips: Kramer. The guy couldn't do any wrong. Well, he eventually did, and much like SST and T & G, he started releasing complete garbage, my interest waned and I looked elsewhere for audio pleasures. Again, as with my previous obsession with SST, in the intervening period I stupidly sold a whole bunch of my Shimmy-Disc records and have since spent the last few years desperately trying to buy them all back again (which has been fairly fruitless, since most of them are out of print and 2nd-hand copies in Australia are near-impossible to find).

Anyway, we all know Bongwater, don't we? The NY duo (or trio or quartet, if you see it differently) featuring Shimmy impresario/producer Kramer and actress/"performance artist" (there oughta be a law., I tells ya...) Ann Magnuson? After a brief stint in the Buttholes and a floundering career in the criminally under-rated Shockabilly with Eugene Chadbourne, Kramer befriended Magnuson on the usual NY circuit, kickstarted the Shimmy label and released the Breaking No New Ground EP in '87, only to release Double Bummer as his Grand Statement a year later. Due to the fact that double-LP releases by underground bands were a rarity at the time (unlike today, where every blowhard insists on releasing 75-minute CDs), DB was instantly hailed a classic upon release: a hippie-punk White Album, an Exile on Main Street of the '80s. Whatever. Not really sure if either claim is correct, but it certainly stuck in my craw and I haven't gotten it out since.

Bongwater were the perfect summation of Kramer's musical loves: the (occasionally grating) bong-hit satire of Zappa and the Fugs, the Euro art-rock of Gong, Soft Machine, Henry Cow and others, the eccentricities of White Album-period Beatles and the lonesome psychedelia of Roky Erickson. Throw that into a mix and you've got prime Bongwater. I know that friends of mine absolutely can't stand just about anything Kramer ever touched - deriding him as The New Zappa (ie. annoying dilettante whose "wackiness" overshadowed his minimal talent) - but for my 2 cents, his ability to marry both "weirdness" and an actual pop tune are near-unparalleled, and DB is his benchmark.

Pros: 4 sides of beautifully screwed-up psychedelic rock, '80s style. Stick the needle on any song, it's all good. Really.
Cons: OK, there's a few here: for one, none of their other material is quite as strong, Kramer eventually went on to release some real atrocities and had a nasty falling-out/lawsuit with Magnuson (who has since gone on to prove herself to be one of the most truly annoying, self-obsessed assholes to grace the entertainment biz today), and, like I said, your ability to handle "humour" within rock music is really going to judge whether Bongwater will float your boat or not.
Related releases: Bongwater's Power of Pussy LP from '91 is almost as good, though avoid the dreadful The Big Sellout from '92, it's a howler.

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